“I can see something in your ear – I think it’s to do with your cochlear implant”, said my younger daughter. Thankfully, I knew this was impossible. But it did make me wonder whether people go home after surgery with gaps in their knowledge that might contribute to anxiety about whether all is as it should be in their recovery period. You leave hospital clutching painkillers and written information about signs of infection and the need to keep the wound dry for a week, but apart from that you’re largely on your own.

I have wondered a few things myself in these first three weeks after surgery. For instance, why, when I had been shown a small thing that is the part of the implant that sits under the skin, does my surgeon appear to have inserted a small sofa there instead? Why is my ear on that side crackling at times, and feeling somehow different from Before – and is this all normal? And where is the cochlea?! I know where it is on the diagram that is on every ENT office wall. But, really, in 3D, in an actual head, my actual head, where is it? It feels a slightly shocking piece of ignorance not to know this, and not to know it quite precisely. 

An early encounter with anatomical instruction came from one of my big sisters, probably before I was old enough for school. I was fascinated by a diagram stuck into her exercise book with parts that could be moved to reveal organs underneath. (Except in my memory this was a diagram of a chicken, which simply can’t be right; who learns chicken anatomy at school?). This was only trumped by a drawing of a ducking stool, in use. Perhaps we have right there the beginnings of my future interests in health and in history! Mind you, I was a terrible student of A level biology, cutting bits out of the dogfish or earthworm as quickly as possible in dissection lessons so I could return to reading my history books, sneakily, under the lab bench (all of this coming home to roost in both subject results).

There is widespread ignorance about human anatomy. Recent surveys in the UK and the US asked people to locate body parts and the only one everyone got right was the brain. Four people in ten can’t point to their heart, and the location of the gall bladder, spleen and adrenal glands are a mystery to most. Worryingly, almost one in five men don’t know they have a prostate. As a former nurse, I can label a fair few anatomical diagrams correctly, but I feel I could do with a lesson in head anatomy in glorious 3D. Meanwhile, if I want to learn to do a caesarean section, Whipple procedure or knee arthroplasty (to name but three), I can begin with the videos of the Play-Doh surgery lessons created by Dr Jessica So for her young son and shown on social media. Clever. (I just made dough pots, food and jewellery with my children; missed a trick there.)

Summing up, it’s probably a good idea to know your arse from your elbow. Moving on from this digression into anatomical ignorance, what else have I learned?

Head surgery feels quite a big deal, even when they make only a small hole

I knew that ear surgery involved microscopes and teeny tiny instruments. I hadn’t given much thought to the necessity to drill through bone. I have now amended my mental image of ENT ((Ear, Nose and Throat) surgeons being like the mice in Beatrix Potter’s Tailor of Gloucester, engaged in delicate and lovely sewing, to being more like – well, orthopaedic surgeons, for whom the human body is a building site, to be worked on with big hammers, saws and all manner of alarming hardware.

The tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter” by Smithsonian Institution Libraries is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

I haven’t had any really bad pain post-op. I’ve been asked if it’s like toothache or a headache, that you just can’t get away from, and I’m relieved to say not like that at all. However, I have been surprised by how bruised and sore I have felt. There’s a wound behind the ear and there’s bruising, from the pinna (the external bit of the ear), which has only very recently stopped feeling like it’s been stamped on, to where part of the implant sits under the skin. This is probably only two or three inches away but it feels like a larger area. It’s still uncomfortable to lie on that side and during the day I am aware of the arm of my glasses pressing on the wound. But it’s definitely getting better, and I read Somewhere On The Internet that this can easily last for 3-6 weeks, so it’s all within what’s to be expected.

My top tips for dealing with bruising and soreness after implant surgery:

  • If you don’t sleep alone, build a pillow barricade between you and your partner to avoid an inadvertent blow to your oh-so-delicate head. Issue dire warnings for any breach.
  • Get a really soft pillow. Or visualise your regular one being the softest thing ever.
  • If you’ve got spare glasses, take off the arm on the implant side. If not, be very careful when putting your glasses on or removing them, and try not to pull a face while you’re doing it. Convince yourself it hurts less than it does. Not making a face helps trick your brain into believing this.

Enough of that nonsense. The next thing is….

Being deafer than ever is really tiring

In the liminal space between surgery and switch-on, I am hearing through the non-implanted ear, with a hearing aid, so rather less than Before. After the two weeks off work that are recommended, I returned to my desk, my commute being just across the landing. I am finding work unexpectedly tiring, which must be the effort of video calls with less hearing than I’m used to. I’m even having to have the odd daytime nap! I’m very fortunate to have flexible working conditions that make this possible, but I’d say to others who are waiting to have implant surgery – expect to be tired and see what you, and others, can do to accommodate that.

There are some myths to bust around cochlear implant switch-on

“Are you excited about the switch-on?” is a common question from kind people who are excited for me. But I am approaching this with curiosity and cautious optimism rather than excitement. Most people, if they’ve seen anything in the media about cochlear implants, will probably have seen those ‘baby hears parent’s voice for the first time’ videos, which contribute to the idea that the results are instant. Instead, I anticipate a lot of work to learn to hear with my implant. I’m getting ahead of myself; this warrants its own blog. It’s one week until my implant is activated, so before that I must take stock. But first, I might just have another nap…